I watched two classic Buster Keaton silent films last night at the historic Bal Theatre in San Leandro. It was an excellent time. The films were accompanied by a pianist (whose name escapes me).
Interesting to consider how much more work was available to musicians prior to the onset of "talkies" (i.e. films with sound). In this instance the pianist had some themes that he must have planned ahead of time to perform with each film, but much of his playing sounded improvised.
During the first film "The General", he favored ragtime piano styles. Strains of Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" littered his playing. But not in an obscene, annoying way. He also adapted a well-known Thelonius Monk tune "Blue Monk" into a slow boogie-woogie style. This piece complemented some of the "runaway train" scenes especially well.
The pacing of the music accompanying the film was impressive. Essentially, the pianist was required to play non-stop for an hour plus. Secondary to this requirement is to keep the themes fresh and not allow the music to become too stale.
Initially I had a difficult time turning my attention to the action onscreen. The pianist was seated front and center, facing the screen. But I gave him my full trust after early demonstrations of his ability, and after that I didn't perceive any difference between his playing and the Buster Keaton action above him.
After a twenty minute break (soundtracked by some awful 1980's pop schlock piped over the speakers), we members of the sparse audience were treated to another Keaton film, "Steamboat Bill, Jr.". Again the same pianist accompanied the action.
For this film he favored a couple famous classical themes: Rachmaninoff's "Prelude in C# minor" and Liszt's "Liebestraum". Again the music was excellent.
I had never previously seen any of Buster Keaton's films. I preferred "The General" to "Steamboat Bill, Jr.", but each was excellent and featured amazing stunts by Keaton. Easy to understand why he is esteemed as a titan of the silent film era. He has a winning screen presence that still translates today.
I left the theater wondering how I would accompany a silent film. Perhaps I'll have an opportunity to try one day.
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